By audio conference from Maize, Kan., educator Dr. Shelia Rathbun warned of the unanticipated negative effects random drug testing policies can have on high school students.
“When fear predominates, underground resistance emerges,” she said.
This is how Rathbun, director of secondary curriculum and career and technical education and former Vice Principal and Principal in the Maize, Kan. school district, concluded her presentation during the Northern Valley Regional High School District’s Board of Education meeting on Monday, Sept. 23.
Though resistance has indeed emerged, it has been far from anything that could be called “underground.” Since June, parents concerned with the board’s plan to draft a random drug testing policy have packed into board meetings, most of them speaking adamantly against the idea.
The board is in the early stages of drafting a policy that – if approved – would institute random drug testing of most students to complement existing anti-drug and alcohol initiatives currently in place. The policy would likely allow for testing of students who participate in extracurricular activities, or those who have parking privileges, a majority of the students population that the state Supreme Court has ruled can be randomly tested for drugs. At least 32 districts throughout New Jersey have instituted random testing policies, according to anecdotal information provided by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
But as the board investigates the policy, which was recommended by district-wide strategic planning efforts, opponents of the plan continue to dissent.
In fact, a group of Northern Valley parents filed a legal claim against the board on Sept. 20 under open records law (“OPRA”) to “compel the [board] to finally and fully answer a request for information and public documents they made in late June. The parents are seeking … information that the board claimed to have in its possession to support the need to impose random drug testing,” said attorney Bruce Rosen, who is representing the dissenting parents.
Rathbun, via teleconference, opened the meeting by discussing her findings from the implementation of random drug testing in her district. A policy was installed in the fall of 2007 and repealed in May 2013.
In six years of random drug testing, Rathbun said, only four tests came up positive. The district spent $31,000 on random drug testing during those years.
Rathbun alleged that students “did not consider random drug testing a reason to not do drugs.” However, she also noted that, from 2006-10, the number of students suspended on the basis of suspicion of being under the influence of drugs declined each year.
The Kansas educator called random drug testing “humiliating” and said it “encroached on personal lives,” which is a platform many district parents have stood on.
Another popular opinion that Rathbun affirmed is that “random drug testing is not a function of a school.” Some parents believe that the district would be overstepping boundaries and interfering with their parenting by implementing random drug tests.
At the board’s Aug. 26 meeting, Hunterdon Central Regional School District Superintendent Chris Steffner presented her thoughts on random drug testing. Steffner generally favors random drug testing; because of this, the board brought in another expert who opposes it (Rathbun).
While it seemed that the parents generally valued Steffner’s insight, they questioned the board’s decision to bring her in. A few parents said that random drug testing may work in Hunterdon County, but suggested that perhaps random drug tests would not be effective in their district because it’s a different place.
The Maize school district, located in south central Kansas, is about 1,400 miles away from the Northern Valley; Rathbun’s presentation was met with applause.
An additional speaker was invited to give her findings on random drug testing. Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, cited many studies that found random drug testing to be ineffective.
According to a study from the University of Michigan, students would often abuse more dangerous drugs than alcohol and marijuana because the more illicit drugs, like opiates, stay in the body for a shorter amount of time and, therefore, would be less likely to be detected in a drug test.
Another study, published recently by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, also found random drug tests to be ineffective.
This issue brief found that “there was no evidence that [random tests] did anything to educate students about the harms of drugs” and that “the evidence does not support the use of [random tests] over other interventions.”
The brief recommends other measures over random drug tests, such as “training of life skills and drug education,” student self-reporting, “better school climates,” and greater involvement from parents and teachers.
Scotti believes that random drug testing, which only tests students who participate in extracurricular activities, is perhaps targeting the wrong people. This is in agreement with the Annenberg brief, which said that random drug testing “misses the ones more likely to be at risk.”
“It builds barriers to kids getting involved in extracurricular activities,” Scotti stated.
The bottom line, in Scotti’s opinion, is that random drug testing is not the best solution.
“We have no good evidence that this works, we have a growing body of evidence that it doesn’t act as a deterrent, and may have very serious unintended consequences,” she concluded.
At about 9:30 p.m., the board opened the meeting for public comment.
Jason Baretz, a junior at Old Tappan and resident of Harrington Park, was the first to speak. Dressed in black and white striped prison garb, Baretz assured the board that he does not do drugs.
“I have come here today to ask you to look down upon me as a criminal,” he said. “Not because I have engaged in anything unlawful, but because this,” he said, raising his handcuffed arms, “is how a random drug testing policy would make kids feel.”
Fellow student Jack Hausman of Norwood agreed.
“You’re telling the kids involved in the school ‘you’re guilty until you prove to me that you’re innocent.’”
Several parents and students lashed out at board member Kathy Fable over a Facebook post she made.
According to Adam Doros, a Harrington Park resident and student at Old Tappan, Fable’s post included, in part, the following:
“‘Should we be acting on the demands of parents who smoke pot with their kids or think that high school is the most appropriate time for kids to experiment with drugs?’ Those are your words,” Doros said to Fable.
“Those are my words,” Fable admitted. “But that does not state that anyone here is smoking pot … That is absolutely false, that was never said, and it’s totally bogus.”
Adam’s father, Dennis Doros, called Fable’s post “a malicious lie.”
Fable told Northern Valley Press that the accusations were “absolutely ridiculous” and “totally erroneous,” reaffirming her stance that her post was not referring to any specific person or persons.
“I have made no such public statements referring to anyone, at any time,” Fable wrote in an email to Northern Valley Press.
The Facebook post in question has since been deleted.
Fable also noted that, “In my personal opinion, the 10 families that have been consistently loud do not represent the majority of parents and students in the district … It seems to me that this very loud, but small group is so desperate to heighten the drama – they’ve now turned to wagering personal attacks on board members to dial up the hysteria … Unfortunately, their accusations are far-fetched.”
Despite the vocal majority’s opposition to random drug testing, there were several present who spoke in favor of it.
Gina Tzavelis of Demarest said that she has seen a drug problem in the district first hand; her son was allegedly approached as a freshman and offered cocaine.
“Having heard many stories since on what really goes on in our high school and in high schools in nearby towns, no amount of statistics … will convince us that we do not have a serious problem in the community,” she said.
Jack Couldis of Closter also said that he doesn’t oppose random drug tests.
“My children have gone through this school and encountered things that I would have never thought possible,” Couldis stated. “To see them and the way they’ve developed hurts me now. To those parents [whose] kids don’t do drugs, great. I’m happy for you … but you [the board] need to do something about this situation. It’s an epidemic. Kids are being hurt.”
When public session closed, Board President John Schettino stated that “nobody on the board believes that random drug testing is the answer by itself.
“The focus of the district,” he went on, “is on educational programs, counseling, and testing – both random and suspicion-based … [random drug testing] is not a standalone program.”
Board Vice President Louis DeLisio, a member of the policy committee, said that he would be “shocked” if the committee could agree on a policy at the originally proposed October timeframe. Fellow trustee and policy committee member Alice Comer added that “I do not expect to be finished in four meetings.”
Schettino determined that the policy committee would be given all of the time it needs to draft the random drug testing policy.
The policy committee will have its first meeting on Sept. 30.
Following concerns raised about the timeline, board member John Passalacqua proposed holding off on a random drug testing policy until January’s reorganization meeting, even if a policy is decided on before then.
“I believe we need new leadership on this,” remarked Passalacqua, who has been a key swing vote in the board’s motions regarding random drug testing.
Passalacqua’s motion passed in a narrow 5-4 decision. A policy will not be presented to the board before January.
Another motion was made by Coats-Thomas, who chairs the policy committee. Her motion was to rescind the drafting of a random drug testing policy and instead have the committee work on other drug prevention measures. This motion was defeated by a vote of 6-3.
Finally, a third motion was proposed by board member Ron Schwartzman. This motion would expand the role of the random drug testing policy committee and have them explore other drug prevention measures.
This motion was defeated 5-4, as the majority of the board members felt that the committee would be overloaded if they were forced to accept additional responsibilities.
Schettino hinted that he may appoint people to form an additional committee whose purpose would be to look into other drug prevention programs.
“I don’t see why anybody would object to two committees of the board working on two different aspects of a drug program,” he said.
The formation of such a committee may take place at the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 14, Schettino said.